At an early-morning Downtown Seattle Association breakfast at BlueAcre Seafood last month, the subject was neighborhood involvement in city planning and the speaker (along with Capitol Hill Community Council president Zach Pullin and me) was Kathy Nyland, the Georgetown activist-turned-Department-of-Neighborhoods-Director who’s in charge of getting neighborhood residents involved in implementing the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.
The question Nyland and Pullin were attempting to answer was this: How can the city get renters, tech workers, and other Seattle residents who don’t participate in the traditional system of neighborhood councils or go to traditional “neighborhood” meetings involved in shaping the future of the city? The problem Nyland and Pullin described is that neighborhood councils tend to be ossified and, as a result, exclusionary, dominated by 50-and-older white homeowners with little incentive to invite newcomers into their midst. Nyland said she hears from those folks all the time; what she wants to do is add new voices to the chorus of retired single-family homeowners. As part of that effort, DON recently took over the HALA outreach process, and actively encouraged people of color, recent immigrants, and renters–who make up half the city–to apply for seats on the four HALA community focus groups.
But integrating new residents and renters into the HALA process remains a challenge, and the loudest voices–the people that occupy most of the city’s field of vision–are the longtime neighborhood activists who have plenty of time to spend at long neighborhood meetings where the overwhelming sentiment is anti-renter, anti-development, and anti-change. At the same time, people who feel alienated from city planning, or who feel (sometimes correctly) that their voices aren’t welcome or being heard, are left on the sidelines and often have no idea how to make their voices heard.
(If you want an example of how NOT to participate in traditional neighborhood organizations, look no further than this guy, a self-described Fremont resident who apparently showed up at the Wallingford Community Council and demanded a seat on their governing board. In a see-I-told-you-they-all-hate-renters gotcha post on the Urbanist blog, he complained that he had been “sidelined” from “my seat” in an elaborate process designed to ensure that no renters would be represented on the board. He does not appear to have participated in the Wallingford Community Council at any previous point, which probably explains the main reason he wasn’t elected: As Nyland and other urbanists who are actually working to organize renters and other disenfranchised folks repeatedly emphasize, you can’t just show up and demand to be taken seriously, you have to organize, and that means getting people to show up in numbers. Tales of woe like this one do nothing but reinforce the common misconception that renters and urbanists have no interest in context or history and don’t care about the concerns of longtime residents. Pullin, in contrast, is working actively on Capitol Hill to organize renters, who represent more than half the city, as my old PubliCola colleague Josh Feit reports today).
So as pro-HALA groups like Seattle for Everyone try to gather steam in neighborhoods across the city for the still-controversial “Grand Bargain”–developer fees for affordable housing as a tradeoff for greater density–I strongly suggest that they attend meetings like the one I went to late last month, where city planning and neighborhood staffers faced off against an angry crowd of more than 100 neighbors who showed up to voice their near-universal disapproval of the proposal at a meeting of the Queen Anne Community Council on top of Queen Anne Hill.
“Those of us who are involved in planning in our communities for a very long time are used to being involved at city hall. … Usually, you go to a public hearing and you get to speak. You get to say, ‘If a guy builds a 27 foot [detached accessory dwelling unit] next to my house, it’s going to wipe out my sun, it’s going to wipe out my light and air,’ and that’s not what’s being done.”
To kick the meeting off, Marty Kaplan, a community council member, homeowner, and former city planning commissioner, offered a lengthy introduction to the two city officials who presented the details of the proposal, Office of Planning and Community Development senior planner Geoff Wendlandt and planning commission staffer Jesseca Brand, which set the (accusatory) tone for the rest of the discussion.
“One of the problems that I have is that those of us in the neighborhoods were left out of the conversation” about HALA, Kaplan said. “Those of us who are involved in planning in our communities for a very long time are used to being involved at city hall. … Usually, you go to a public hearing and you get to speak. You get to say, “If a guy builds a 27 foot [detached accessory dwelling unit] next to my house, it’s going to wipe out my sun, it’s going to wipe out my light and air,” and that’s not what’s being done.”
Kaplan continued: “There’s a lot of things that will eventually take away a lot of the physical things that you enjoy in your house, or even if you’re in an apartment. … There’s a lot of impacts in here [and] we’ve been used to being able to talk about this with planners and city hall and come up with some pretty good and respectful partnerships.” In contrast, Kaplan said, the city is now trying to shove a “one-size-fits-all” approach down longtime neighborhood residents’ throats.
Wendlandt and Brand fielded Kaplan’s comments and complaints from neighbors for about two hours. Most of those complaints fell into one of three categories: 1) Concerns that the city has failed to involve neighbors in the HALA process; 2) Complaints that HALA will upzone the entire city; and 3) Objections related to “concurrency,” the idea that the city needs to add roads, transit service, and sewers before adding housing. (The urbanist response to those complaints, in turn: Neighborhoods are well-represented on the four HALA focus groups and the city continues to hold meetings like the very one at which this comment was made; HALA will not upzone the whole city, though it will expand some urban villages and make it slightly easier to build backyard corrages; and Seattle is expected to add about 120,000 people in the next 20 years, and those people need places to live).
Another popular objection, one I’ve heard many times over the years in Seattle, was that the city “already has enough capacity to accommodate all the growth we’re going to get,” a claim based on the absurd premise that many thousands of small apartments and single-family homes will be demolished across Seattle so that all the city’s land can be redeveloped to its maximum zoning capacity. The “existing zoning capacity” objection also ignores the fact that HALA, unlike roughshod redevelopment, will actually build affordable housing, which is what everyone says they want.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? For urbanists, anyway, it’s that if you don’t like the way neighborhood groups are framing development or the shape they want to take the neighborhoods we all live in, it’s important to be meaningfully engaged–not just showing up alone to a meeting or two to shake your fist at the way things are, but turning out in numbers to learn, listen, and participate, both in traditional homeowner-dominated neighborhood groups and new organizations that challenge the status quo. For city officials, it’s that engaging people outside traditional neighborhood groups is critical, and that those groups don’t represent any consensus except a consensus among themselves. Renters, low-income people, disabled and elderly residents, and others who aren’t usually at the table need to be invited in and listened to, whether that means outreach specifically aimed at renters (guess what? When you “inform” a neighborhood by placing flyers on people’s doors or porches, you miss most of the people who live in apartments) or broader outreach at events and in groups that include a more representative sample of Seattle residents than, say, a community council or a private Nextdoor group. Ultimately, as Nyland noted at the DSA meeting at Blueacre, inviting more people into the planning process may also mean deemphasizing the voices that have traditionally held sway at city hall; the city is well aware of what single-family homeowners tend to think, but they may not be as familiar with what low-income renters or homeless residents think. For those voices to be heard, some people, however reluctantly, are going to have to sit and listen.